Crater Lake. The Pacific Coast. Ghost towns in the high desert. That’s cool, but how can you do so much riding alone? This question is usually followed by a comment like “you’re so courageous.” I never quite know what to say to women who ask this. It doesn’t feel courageous at all; it feels natural and fun to not know exactly where I’m going or where I’ll stay each night. Compared to most touring cyclists, my little week-long jaunts are nothing. But I sense some fear in the reaction of my friends, fear I don’t feel. This isn’t because I’m courageous, but…why? Why do I like riding off the map alone? I think it started with Lost & Unlost.
Lost & Unlost is a game I invented when I was a kid. Ride the bike until you don’t know where you are anymore, and then get yourself back home without alarming any parents. This started in Eugene, Oregon, which was, and still is, Track Town USA. Our house was a few blocks from the famous Hayward Field. Running was emerging as the new national craze. I ran with my dad and brother, but always picked a bike when on my own, probably because I wasn’t a great runner, but also because bikes are faster, and faster means further, and both mean more fun.
I had the blessing of parents who didn’t believe in television. Instead, they let me explore as far as I wanted on bike, as long as I took a map, slid a quarter in my shoe for an emergency call, and made it back by dinner. Maps were the free kind, snipped out of the phone book, folded into a pocket, and prone to disintegrate into sweaty pulp. I’d intentionally outride their margins until I didn’t know where I was, and then thread my way home however I could, sometimes cutting through alleys or fields until my mental map started to make sense again. This practical problem-solving was a scary but fun test of my memory and stamina.
Lost & Unlost.
Maybe my parents were naive. Maybe times were different back in the day, though this is doubtful, considering Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer were active agents of evil in our region. Maybe my parents felt I was sufficiently safe with the quarter and the map and my mom’s ‘scary stranger’ training. She’d said, “If you can’t be ugly, act ugly.” When I was the least bit suspicious of someone, I was to cuss loudly, hack up loogies, wipe my nose on my palm, and cough hard. She made me practice.
But maybe my parents were wise. A bike does make a kid less approachable. A bike says, “I planned to be here, and I know what I’m doing.” Since you know what you’re doing, most people leave you alone, especially if you’re launching snot rockets. Encounters are usually on your terms. Not many people ask you if you need a ride when you’re on a bike, even if you’re tending toward heat exhaustion and really do need a ride. Also, if someone intends you harm, your bike and all its doo-dads might prove tougher to dispose of than your corpse.
Mom and Dad probably didn’t know how far I was riding or that I was intentionally getting lost. But they knew that exploring reinforced skills they valued. Noticing my surroundings. Maintaining direction in unfamiliar terrain. Making a map in my head. Who to approach if I need help, who might need my help, and how to talk to people in both cases. Most of all, my secret game taught me how to work through fear. Lost & Unlost has been rendered obsolete by both parenting mores and technology, but the skills it requires remain vital to solo cycling.
I love seeing programs encouraging women and girls to ride. Lael Wilcox, bikepacking superstar, started the GRIT (Girls Riding into Tomorrow) initiative; National Interscholastic Cycling Association also has their GRiT program (Girls Riding Together). In our neighborhood, Michelle and Sara, two coaches for our local high school MTB team, recently expanded the program to include rides for moms during team training days. I coach several women-only MTB classes each year. What’s not to love about this? More girls and women are connecting with each other and making cycling a lifelong joy. But it’s much more rare to hear cheering for women heading off solo.
Well, I’m cheering. So is Alee Denham, currently pedaling somewhere between Argentina and Alaska. He compiled a fabulous list of soloists a couple years ago. Every one of the women listed here address significant challenges about soloing, and every podcast, interview, website, and book provides compelling reasons to step into, not away from, those challenges and joys.
Dervla Murphy, one of my heroes (she pedaled solo from Ireland to India in 1963), sought to “contradict the popular fallacy that a solitary woman who undertakes this sort of journey must be ‘very courageous’.”
If courage were needed, I wouldn’t begin. And I’d miss the blessings of a few days without plans. So start small. Turn off your phone. Ride a little bit beyond the borders of your mental map. Lost & Unlost might just bring you home happier, freer, and in time for dinner. And from there? The path is up to you.
When asked by one of my kids how I seem to know my way around everywhere, I responded, “I get lost a lot and still make it home.”
There’s definitely value in getting lost. If nothing else, a good story.
Go Julie! I wish more people had that attitude about bike commuting. It doesn’t take bravery, just commitment and a willingness to experiment.
Great article Julie. I really enjoyed reading it–what fun! Another fellow solo woman explorer who rides and writes is Laura Killingbeck. She writes for Adventure Cycling Association.
Thanks for pointing me toward Laura, Maureen. I prowled around her site this evening and found this blog about cycling alone. Apparently, we’ve been cruising similar thought-maps. She’s inspirational.
Great stuff, Julie! I love your work, keep it up!
Love the story, Julie. I shared it with my wife and two daughters, all of whom love to cycle.
I started doing my own cycling exploring when I was old enough to finally go to Sunday Mass by myself. I wasn’t much for church, so I would head out on my bike and go as far away from home in any direction I could. Great fun. Would get to places I had never been and then have to figure out how to get back.